Racine’s performance complicates starting goaltender conversation

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By Erin Lennon, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 10, 2014

On any other team, Steve Racine is a starting goaltender.

Last season, the then-freshman emerged from a first half filled with question marks as the Michigan hockey team’s strongest option in net. In 25 games during his first-year campaign, Racine boasted a 12-6-3 record, leading the Wolverines to the CCHA tournament finals with a .899 save percentage.

His performance during his team’s final games of the season earned him a spot on the CCHA All-Tournament Team and was good enough for Michigan coach Red Berenson to declare Racine the starter in September, prior to the beginning of the 2013-14 season.

“He’s been through a year of the routine,” Berenson said before the season opener. “Of school, and hockey and off-ice training, and he’s had the ups and downs. Fortunately, he finished on a high.”

Then, on Oct. 18 — just three games into the year — Racine suffered a groin injury that forced him off the ice for four weeks. Up until that point, in slightly more than eight periods of play, Racine posted a 2.22 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage, numbers that stood out considering the Wolverines’ young and inexperienced defense.

If sitting out wasn’t bad enough, Racine’s replacement gave his coaches something to ponder. Freshman goaltender Zach Nagelvoort was unbeaten in two overtime contests that weekend against New Hampshire and only improved in the weeks to come.

Now, nearly four months later, Racine’s October injury still plagues him. Though it appeared the 10th-ranked Wolverines would go with a two-goalie system in November, Nagelvoort was given the nod most often through the first half. Dressed in full uniform and mask, Racine watched the freshman — who now ranks among the nation’s best netminders — start seven straight games, begging the question: had Nagelvoort solidified himself as Michigan’s starter?

Though Berenson felt no need to seal the envelope, Nagelvoort’s stellar performance against then-No. 9 Wisconsin two weeks ago all but did the answering for him.

But on Saturday at Penn State, Racine — on in relief of Nagelvoort, who allowed three goals in fewer than 14 minutes of play — reminded the Wolverines why he was their starting goaltender in October.

Racine stopped 30 of the 31 he shots faced in his first appearance since Dec. 28. Though Michigan’s dormant power play couldn’t muster a comeback, the sophomore gave the Wolverines an opportunity to come back for the better part of two periods.

His performance was all the more impressive given Michigan’s shaky defense and the pressures that come with taking the ice in the middle of a period without ample time to warm up, especially after six weeks on the bench.

“It’s obviously never how you want to get in there,” Racine said. “When you’re standing on the bench, it’s hard to stay focused, but it’s just something you have to do. You just have to be ready whenever.”

So, as the Wolverines prepare for a pair of marquee matchups against No. 2 Minnesota, Michigan’s coaching staff has more questions to answer.

“We’ll have to wait and see,” Berenson said. “(Nagelvoort) has played really well, and then all of a sudden he had a stinker. That happens to the best of goalies.

“I like the way Steve responded. He jumped in, and I still thought we had a chance to win that game … but he gave us a chance.”

Though it’s a small sample size, Racine boasts a .930 save percentage and has allowed just 2.64 goals per game. And though Nagelvoort disappointed against Penn State, he has proven he can play against any team.

The coaching staff makes decisions about goaltenders on the Thursday before each series, and Berenson said this week will be no different. If nothing else, the door has been opened a little wider for Racine.

“We’re watching how they’re playing, how they’re handling it, and so on,” Berenson said. “But I don’t think we’re going to overthink it.”

Still, 40 minutes of solid netminding doesn't fully characterize a starter. Racine’s numbers may make him a shoo-in for starting goaltender at nearly any other program in the country, but this is Michigan, a team with two worthy candidates, and there’s only room for one in net.

NOTES: Michigan will likely skate without junior forward Alex Guptill this weekend, Berenson said Monday. Guptill left late in the second period Saturday with an upper-body injury after being pinned by two Penn State players and didn’t return for the final frame. … Freshman defenseman Kevin Lohan, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament on Nov. 1, won’t play this weekend, but will be evaluated again next week before the Wolverines host the Nittany Lions on Feb. 21.